I love a good road trip. Preferably one through places I’ve not been before. My experience in Spain has been limited to Madrid and Barcelona . This is my first time venturing further afield, to Andalusia. The original plan was to fly to Malaga, arriving about 8.30 pm and driving straight to Ronda. But given that RyanAir must have sold their on-time bugle, we figured there was a better than average chance the flight would be delayed. And it was. Fair play, Michael. Never one to disappoint.
For some reason, I’d expected the road to Ronda to be a narrow, climbing one with steep cliffs on both sides. Gorge and treacherous were my word associations. So rather than risk the night drive, we decided to stay in Cártama, a small town between Malaga and Ronda.
Racking up close to 11 pm, I was worried nothing would be open. I’d forgotten I was in Spain where people don’t get hungry till 10.30pm. We checked in, parked the bags, and hit the tapas. Apart from the fountain and the Lidl, I didn’t see much of note. The place seemed lively enough and the tapas were cheap and plentiful, as was the wine. Not a bad start. We’ll call that Day 0.
Day 1, we hit the road to Ronda. For all Spain’s passion and its palaver, this part of the country is quite uniform. There’s a military precision to its fields, its olive groves, its citrus trees. Windfarms stand sentry, their whiteness even whiter against the blue sky and the Van Gogh yellow of the cut fields. It’s picture-postcard stuff. I was glad we’d waited and not missed it all in the dark.
The approach to Ronda was less than inspiring. It wasn’t at all what I’d imagined. I’d been waiting for that audible gasp, that full-on America OMG, this is awesome… but I missed it. We’d booked into El Poeta, a gorgeous, fabulously furnished boutique hotel in the old town. The room wasn’t ready so we dropped the bags, parked the car, and went for a wander. Crossing the new bridge and looking down into the gorge, I could see what the fuss was about. El Tajo (the gorge) divides the new town (mid-fifteenth century) from the old Moorish town. Breathtakingly beautiful, particularly around 9 pm when the sun hits the sides. There are a number of vantage points, the best of which is probably the 1.3 km descent to the base.
With just one day to do the town justice, we picked four places we wanted to see and then put the guidebook and the map away and just wandered.
I mistakenly thought that this was St John Bosco’s home, but no. It was willed by the Granada family to the Salesians as a nursing home for elderly and ill priests. Once upon a time though, it was a single-family residence and if I had any one of my lives to live over, I wouldn’t say no to being one of the Ronda Granadas. The €2 entrance fee is money well spent. The tile work in the gardens rivals the best I’ve seen in Portugal. And the views from the winter garden… words fail me.
I’ve been a practising Catholic for all my adult life and a regular Rosaryer. I’ve done my fair share of Stations of the Cross. But this was the first time I’d ever heard of the Marian alternative to the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis): Via Matris (Way of the Mother). But I think this was the Via Lucis (Way of Light) … with a Marian influence. It was all a little confusing. Nonetheless, it’s an incredible piece of work. Some stations, in particular, are very expressive.
The massive chandelier with its 24 700 diamond shaped crystals (Who counted them?) competes for attention with ornate side altars and statues and colourful wall paintings with slightly different takes on the usual. The Last Supper, for instance, the rendition of the Last Supper is one I’ve not seen before – the servants are mainly women and Our Lord and the Lads aren’t sitting around the usual table. It’s all a lot friendlier. The €4 entrance fee includes a self-guided audio tour.
The bullring, the Plaza de Toros, is reputedly the biggest in the world. Some 60 meters in diameter, it was the first stone ring built in Spain and one of the first where the matador met the bull on foot. It seats 4500 spectators and in its day has been everything from a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War to a boxing arena. Tickets are sold for four main sections – No. 1 and No. 2 are in the shade, No. 3 is part sun/part shade, and No. 4 is all sun. It’s all very well done with a great museum in the walls around the ring. Did you know that a matador’s cape weights 5 kg? That’s 5 bags of sugar. Entry fee is €8.50, which includes a self-guided audio tour. Andalusia has a number of rings but some quick research assured us that this was the one to see.
The only museum in the country devoted to bandits, this quirky one-of-a-kind offers a fascinating account of the famous Spanish banditos and the Civil Guard formed to hunt them down. The last of the lot, Pasos Largos, was killed in 1934. Some of them were Robin-Hood-style good guys, but more of them were bloodthirsty vagabonds. The museum has an impressive collection of 495 books written about them dating from 1823 to today. €3.75 will get you in the door and most of the exhibition is translated into English.
Eating in Ronda
There’s no shortage of places to eat in Ronda but to get the real experience, venture off the tourist track into the back streets, into the Spanish neighbourhoods. Find a place that has a few old men deep in conversation or a group of young mothers with their kids running around. They’re the good ones. Most places do reasonably priced daily menus (The Hemmingway Café at El Poeta has some good gazpacho – how could I not have known that this cold soup originated in Andalusia?) and if you find a local bar, you can get your tapas for a €1 a go. With so many places to choose from and so few meals to eat, we split them up – with starters in one, mains in another, and dessert in a third. Hey, it’s Spain. No one is in any great rush to go anywhere.
Throw the guidebook away and wander. Check out the doors, the doorknockers, the potted plants. Look up as well as down and over and across. It’s a great little spot – one not to be missed if you’re in the vicinity.